December 18, 2003

Britain fails to tackle looted artefact trade

Posted at 12:43 pm in Similar cases

Despite heightened awareness following the looting of Baghdad, Britain continues to be a major trading centre for illegally acquired artefacts.

The Independent

MPs attack failure to halt trade in looted antiquities
By Louise Jury, Arts Correspondent
17 December 2003

Britain’s £4.2bn arts market is being damaged by the Government’s failure to clamp down on the illicit trade in arts and antiques, a parliamentary select committee said yesterday. This has made it easier for thieves to trade antiquities looted from Iraq because of the damaging lack of progress on tackling the problem.

The Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee made recommendations when it investigated stolen cultural property three years ago, and launched a new inquiry this year prompted by the situation in Iraq. But in Cultural objects: developments since 2000, published yesterday, the committee said there had been “few concrete achievements” and almost none of its recommendations had been implemented.

The failure to establish a national database of stolen cultural objects was “lamentable”, a “complete failure of ‘joined-up government’ “, the committee said. Only now is a pilot scheme for a database being set up, with no final decision expected before 2005.

Gerald Kaufman, the committee chairman, said it appeared looted Iraqi treasures had made their way on to the British market. “We have no better means of dealing with such thefts and illegal attempts to sell on than we would have done before this committee, three and a half years ago, first started looking at this.”

The Metropolitan Police had a “minute fraction of the manpower” of colleagues in, for example, Italy. It was a “serious weakness” that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport could not even refuse an export licence when there were suspicions an item was tainted. And Customs and Excise had no powers to check consignments of cultural goods. Mr Kaufman said the lack of action from the department and the Home Office was “deplorable” and had tarnished the reputation of the British art market.

“London is probably the most important centre of the art market in the world and £4.2bn is traded here every year, [so] we do not regard that as satisfactory.”

Criminals used art and antiquities for money-laundering, which also made this a major law and order issue, he added.

The select committee also examined claims against British museums and galleries for the return of items. Many institutions are forbidden by statute to return or sell objects. The committee had supported keeping the Elgin Marbles but yesterday called for the return of other disputed antiquities in the British Museum.

The so-called Maqdala treasures were looted from Ethiopia in 1868 and sold to the museum, but are never shown because they are so important to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. “It is difficult to imagine a clearer example of a moral claim to which a charity’s trustees might wish to give effect than that of Ethiopia for the return of its most sacred artefacts,” the committee said.

It also criticised a lack of progress on what to do with human remains, such as Aboriginal bones, most held in the Natural History Museum.

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